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Fluence (1): Part I


Fluence (1): Part I

Ezra Pound and In a Station of the Metro

BY Nick Avis

When you arrive at an image intuitively, you don’t necessarily know exactly what it means. It emerges from your subconscious like a dream and like a dream it may require analysis and yet never fully yield.

Christopher Pratt, 1985
from Ordinary Things (1)


Ezra Loomis Pound (1885 – 1972) is considered to be the founder of Imagism and the foremost Imagist poet and theorist even though he only remained with the group for a little over a year. His poem In a Station of the Metro is certainly the best known Imagist poem and one of the best known poems of the 20th century. Pound is also considered a major figure in the Modernist movement. Imagistic ideas influenced a number of major poets of the 20th century and continue to be at the heart of poetic practice. (2) His Metro poem and his theory of the Image mark the beginnings of haiku in English.

Minimalism as we now know it originated with the Imagists especially Pound and William Carlos Williams; and Pound used visual and spatial techniques in his Metro poem and in his Cantos, techniques later embraced by the concrete poetry movement (circa 1950) though not necessarily attributed to him.

Pound was influenced by all of the arts, many other disciplines, philosophy and psychology in particular, and by a number of different cultures. He was sufficiently fluent in several languages to read in the original and translate. Chinese poetry and the Chinese written character were two of the more significant influences on him.

Pound was familiar with haiku, which he called hokku, haikai and tanka, as were most of the Imagists. He took a particular interest in the Noh drama, an interest he shared with W. B. Yeats. His understanding of the hokku, whether accurate or not, influenced his Metro poem, how he applied his definition of the Image if not the definition itself, and the way haiku would be viewed in the future.

Pound wrote an essay about his Metro poem in which he gives an account of its origin and its development. The article is entitled “Vorticism” which is a more strict form of Imagism and a term, like Imagisme, which Pound invented. (3)

A great deal has been written about Pound, his theories and his Metro poem. The main focus of this article will be whether or not Pound’s Metro poem is a haiku.

Pound calls his Metro poem “a hokku-like sentence.” Bruce Ross, editor of Haiku Moment, says it “is clearly an exercise in fabricated metaphor.” (4) William Higginson, author of The Haiku Handbook, Haiku World and Haiku Seasons, calls it “a haiku Shiki would have been proud to write.” (5) Most seem to agree it is his most haiku-like poem.

The four versions

Pound revised In a Station of the Metro three times creating four versions but he did not change a single word or the lineation (the division into lines). The event in the Metro itself occurred in 1911 and the poem took him over a year to write.

The first version was published in Poetry in April 1913 and again in New Freewoman on 15 August 1913, later renamed The Egoist:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition      of these faces      in the crowd:
Petals      on a wet, black bough.

Pound said, “I was careful, I think, to indicate spaces between the rhythmic units, and I want them observed.” (6) He said that “Rhythm MUST have meaning.” [Emphasis in the original] (7)

The spaces and the colon at the end of the first line determine the pace of the poem. Read aloud it sounds as if it is composed of five lines. In his Essay Pound does mention seeing five faces. The pauses and the diminishing syllable count until the last phrase (5/4/3/2/5 syllables) have the effect of slowing down the pace of the poem until the end when it picks up slightly.

Read a certain way it sounds as if the poet is searching, perhaps questioning his experience until the very end when he realizes something.

The intermittent reading of the phrases in each line can have a haunting quality to it. This is true whether haunted by beauty or haunted by a ghost.

In time with the spoken word, the five phrases appear one after the other like the faces in the crowd. In the second line, first the poet sees only petals . . . then he sees the wet, black bough. The word Petals is being emphasized and isolated both orally and visually.

The poem can be “read” vertically – if only in a visual sense. This does not generate another poem, reading or variation but it does emphasize and reorient the relationships between the elements of the two images: the petals become the apparition; the faces are on the wet, black bough; anyone in the crowd and the crowd itself is isolated and surrounded by empty space.

The two lines can be seen as the black bough; the spaces the petals: a kind of visual onomatopoeia.

Pound is clearly experimenting with alternate ways of reading a poem, and the physical relationship of the lines of the poem with each other and the surrounding space of the page, much like Mallarme (1842 – 1898) did in his last published poem, “A Dice Throw.” These kinds of concerns are at the heart of minimalist and concrete poetry.

Both the Chinese and the Japanese languages are written vertically; and in their visual arts, the space surrounding an object can be as important as the object itself, which is also an underlying principle of sculpture in the West. All of the techniques found or used in this version of Pound’s Metro poem were embraced by the concrete poetry movement (circa 1950) though not necessarily attributed to him. If any of these possibilities were unintended, one of the poem’s manifestations is as a found concrete poem.

In Personae (1926) the title of the poem appears in large block capitals and it may have appeared in this format elsewhere. (8) Creative use of capital letters is a concrete poetry technique but since the titles to all the poems in Personae are in block capitals, it appears to be a design feature of the book itself.

The second version was published in T.P’s Weekly on 6 June 1913 (9):

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound closes the spaces and changes the line arrangement by indenting the second line. The poem can now be read in two-thirds the time of the first version. The picture of the bough and the petals is lost.

Higginson said the main effect of closing the spaces was to “smooth the rhythm” and make “the poem less choppy.”(10) Read correctly the rhythm of the first version is smooth and it is not choppy—just different. Yet its slow, gradual pace is inconsistent with the suddenness of the apparition (Pound’s words) and his definition of the Image as presented “in an instant of time.”

With the indented second line, the poem looks more symmetric. This is consistent with Pound’s view of hokku as a one image poem in which “one idea” is “set on top of another.”

Even though it is not as obvious, there is still a vertical relationship between the apparition and the Petals, and the faces and the black bough; and the expression “The . . . crowd” is isolated, having the same effect as before.

The third version appears in Pound’s Essay “Vorticism” published in Fortnightly Review on 1 September 1914 and republished in the April 1916 publication of Gaudier-Brzeska:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.

In his Essay Pound presents two Japanese haiku in translation in exactly the same form as his Metro poem, both with indented second lines and a colon. This suggests that it may have been a form he was using at the time, not so much a technique. Still, it says a lot about his perception of haiku.

The only change here is the addition of a comma after Petals. This appears to be grammatically incorrect although correct grammar can be irrelevant in poetry. Pound obviously wanted a pause after Petals and to isolate the word as before.

The fourth version appeared in Lustra in September 1916. It is the final version and the most familiar one. The comma after Petals is removed; a semi-colon substituted for the colon; and Pound reverts back to the traditional left-flush line arrangement:

In a Station of the Metro

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Since a colon can indicate a longer pause than a semi-colon, this along with the removal of the comma speed up the reading of the poem slightly. A vertical reading is still possible though visually less obvious. As in the first version, the two lines resemble the black bough and the phrase “in the crowd” is isolated.

This isolation and vertical juxtaposition of words or phrases by means of lineation and/or line arrangement, present in all of the versions of this poem in varying degrees, is both a product and a technique of vers libre, and an important technique in minimalist and concrete poetry. It emphasizes and creates new relationships between the component images and ultimately the possible readings of the poem, and is the visual equivalent of connecting words by sound. The effect becomes more significant and more intense the shorter the poem and the resulting vertical juxtaposition of words or phrases can imply a sense of identity between them. The technique itself can be emphasized as Pound did by spatial arrangement or, for example, by using different type face or different type size.

The change from the colon to the semi-colon is seen as a significant issue in deciding how to interpret the poem and whether or not it is a haiku.

A hokku like sentence

Whether or not a poem is a haiku may say nothing about its quality as a poem; and the senryu is not the only alternative.

Pound’s initial response to his “metro emotion,” the “lovely . . . sudden emotion” he felt on seeing the beautiful faces appear one by one in the crowd, was to express himself in paint “in little splotches of colour.” He called it “a pattern” and spoke of “arrangements” of colour, and referred to Kandinsky’s theories of colour, light, and form. He was thinking abstractly and wanted to evoke his emotion, not to describe it. He was not concerned with realism or presenting what he actually saw, only how to best present his emotion.

If the poet did not intend a poem to be a haiku then it can only be a found haiku. Pound called it “hokku-like” and in his Essay he makes it abundantly clear he was trying to write an Imagist poem based on his own theory of the Image, not a haiku; and that he only found his understanding of the hokku “useful” to help him out of his emotional “impasse.” Still, it has many of the characteristics of traditional and non-traditional urban haiku even if they are read into the poem.

The poem is written in free verse. Its form is short enough (19 syllables) to be a long, two line English haiku with a title. (English syllables are not the same as Japanese syllables.) No doubt Pound was familiar with the two line translations of Lafcadio Hearn (1900) and Basil Hall Chamberlain (1902) extant at the time. (11)

A two line form in English is consistent with the fact that a haiku is fundamentally a two image poem, image being defined in its broadest sense including simply naming something; and it is consistent with Japanese haiku which are usually divided into two rhythmic units by a cutting word, a form of division within the poem unique to the Japanese language and for which punctuation is an inadequate substitute. Pound was of the view that “Most hokku are bilateral.” (12)

The title is an essential part of the first image: an underground railway station with a dark tunnel in the background, which is the inverted image of the black bough. So the syllable count is really 8/12/7, for a total of 27, which is closer in length to a tanka (traditionally 31 Japanese syllables).

Especially during Basho’s time (1644 – 1694) a number of haiku had head notes (sometimes the equivalent of a title), which included introductions, dates and locations. (13) The hokku began a poem (haikai) which had a title; and when and where it was written is almost always known. In haibun (prose and poem) detail essential to a fuller and deeper understanding of the haiku is given in the preceding prose. It was Shiki (1867 – 1902) who insisted on the complete independence of the haiku, something which has been adopted in English, and is one reason why a title is often called the fourth line of a haiku.

Sound is very important in Japanese haiku but regrettably not so in English haiku. The poem is so very musical and the language intimately connected with sound, predominantly on a subliminal level and very subtly. Pound said in A Few Don’ts By An Imagiste:

                  It is not necessary that a poem should rely on its music, but if it does
                  rely on its music that music must be such as will delight the expert.
                  [Emphasis in the original] (14)

There is some rhyme, alliteration and assonance although it is more important to connect the sounds than to label them. (Generally the Imagists moved away from rhyme.) The result is a richly textured weaving of sound, unifying and interconnecting the principal elements of the images and redefining the relationships between them: The station is connected to the apparition; the apparition to the Petals; the Petals to the station; the Petals to the faces; the Petals to the black bough; the black bough to the crowd, and so on. Then consider the vowel sounds. These sound connections are another form of juxtaposition and can create a greater sense of identity between the component images.

The season is spring because the petals come from the blossoms of the black bough while the tree is in bloom, possibly late bloom because the petals would have fallen had they not been stuck to the wet, black bough. The petals are all the same colour since they came from the same tree.

All that is known about the tree is that it is fruit bearing with a black bark. Black is rare in nature. If the tree was known, early, mid or late spring could be specified. The black bough could be wet due to a light spring rain, mist or both. Mist is more in keeping with the underlying mystery of the poem – things seen through, veiled or cloaked in mist.

Spring implies hope, beginning, rebirth, beautiful, sudden, unexpected and surprising; life rising from decay; light coming out of the darkness. Petals suggest beauty, desire, passion, vulnerability, the feminine, the ephemeral transient nature of all things in the cycle of the seasons (the finite in the infinite); and the fact the petals are beginning to fall suggests the decline and death of the blossoms and the season itself. Springtime in Paris has its own associations.

The time of day can only be implied. Back then would morning and evening be the rush hours and the most likely times for a crowd in the Paris Metro? Spring alone without the time of day can imply morning. Then there is the dark Metro tunnel and the black bough, suggesting it is evening. Such ambiguity can create two poems that relate to each other, adding another level of juxtaposition.

The poem is written in the present tense with only nouns and two adjectives, both of them essential, consistent with Pound’s dictum on the subject: “No superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.” (15) There is no verb. The language is objective and very simple except perhaps for the word apparition. The emotion of the poem is unstated and intended to be evoked, something which is considered essential in haiku and Imagism. On rare occasions in both, emotion is explicitly stated.

There are two images in the poem juxtaposed together (Pound calls them two ideas). The heart of the poem is the interaction of these two images as it would be with any haiku.

The apparition is singular. This means that even though the poet may have seen the faces appear one by one, which is how Pound describes the actual event, it is “The apparition of these faces in the crowd” all at once that is presented as the first image. Pound does not say he saw them all at once, so the first image may have been imagined but it could be real. Nothing is revealed about the faces themselves or how many.

The second image, though vague in certain particulars, is a very clear visual image, easy to imagine: petals clinging to a wet, black bough—pink, red or white the obvious first choices, each colour giving the poem a different mood.

The poem is entitled “In a Station of the Metro” and since there were no blossoming trees in the Paris underground, the second image is in the poet’s mind and recalled when he sees the apparition in the station or it is imagined and brought to mind at the time.

There seems to be much debate about the meaning of the word “apparition,” which is pivotal in the poem. There are essentially two diametrically opposed meanings: the immaterial and the sensual. 1. An immaterial (incorporeal, spiritual, not consisting of matter) appearance as of a real being; a spectre, a ghost. 2. A phenomenon (highly exceptional and unaccountable, directly of the senses), remarkable, unexpected. (The Shorter O.E.D, 1973. The OED also says that the first definition is the current one and by implication it would have been current at the time the poem was written.)

The poem can accommodate all of these meanings. Immaterial, spectre, ghost: these mean the image is moving from the sensual into the realm of impressions and the imagination. The faces no longer seem real; they are ghost–like images emerging from the underworld. The second meaning can present an actual event: a phenomenon, the faces appearing together all at once, suddenly and unexpectedly out of the crowd—the black tunnel behind them. These possibilities add further layers to the poem and the interaction of these layers can be another form of juxtaposition. It is inconsistent with Pound’s definition of the Image that an Imagist poem can have only one possible meaning

When Pound calls his Metro poem a sentence he is stating the obvious. The poem including the title is a sentence with two words missing:

In a station of the Metro the apparition of these faces in the crowd
(is like) petals on a wet, black bough.

When this can be done so easily it strongly suggests that the poem is a fragmented sentence; and that the second image is a description of the first, implying it is a simile and not a metaphor, even if it can be read as one. A colon can also imply a simile although Higginson says in Pound’s Metro poem the colon makes the second image a metaphor of the first. (16) Lucien Stryk in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry calls the fourth version of the poem a simile, in which Pound uses a semi-colon. (16A)

A simile is the simplest relationship between two images and tends towards description rather than evocation. It presents image A only in terms of image B. A simile can be a perfect description and maybe even a perfect image but it is usually at best a weak metaphor. Generally a simile is ineffective in haiku because it does not express any kind of identity or contrast, and it does not present the images as existing independently of one another. Similes are found in haiku prior to Basho and in some modern Japanese haiku.

A sentence can be a poem and this issue lies at the heart of the prose versus poem-vers libre–free verse debate, which will be dealt with later in this series. William Carlos William’s The Red Wheelbarrow, for example, is a fragmented sentence. Like haiku, the sentence poem is a very difficult thing to do well. Many English haiku are fragmented sentences.

In his Essay, Pound is explicit and detailed in his description of the origin and development of his Metro poem. He refers to two Japanese hokku and it is most likely that they are his versions. Both are presented in the same form as the second version of his Metro poem. The first, given by Pound only as an example of a hokku, is by Moritake (1472 – 1549):

The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
          A butterfly.

In a vertical reading the fallen blossom is directly above the butterfly. The two lines can be seen as the branch. A colon is used giving some indication of how Pound interpreted the relationship between the two images.

It is obvious Pound appropriated the second image for his Metro poem from the first line of Moritake’s poem. Over the years Pound has made a number of comments about appropriation from other poets.

In a letter to William Carlos Williams (1908) he said, “It is only good manners if you repeat a few other men to at least do it better or more briefly.” (His poem is certainly much better than Moritake’s.) In his essay “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” (1913) he says, “have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it.” (17) (Pound conceals it in his poem but acknowledges the debt outright in his essay.)

Whoever translated the poem missed the point and the colon is incorrect. R.H.Blyth translates it this way:

A fallen flower
Flew back to its branch!
No, it was a butterfly.

As Blyth says, “It was a momentary mistake.” (18)

If you add the word “like” to the second line of Pound’s version of Moritake’s poem, it becomes a sentence with a simile. This is not possible with Blyth’s translation.

Moritake was a Shinto priest and his poem was inspired by a line of scripture: “Can a fallen blossom return to its branch?” (19) This alludes to whether an enlightened man who has become disillusioned can become enlightened again, to which Moritake has added Chuang Tzu’s butterfly. The event could have happened. Doubtful it did. Obviously the poet wanted it to happen.

The second haiku was told to Pound and he added the words “are like . . . for clarity.” It was an actual event and the haiku was written in the moment. Pound said the poem was “roughly as follows,” which suggests this was in fact his version:

The footsteps of the cat upon the snow:
          (are like) plum blossoms.

Another sentence—another simile; and footsteps is certainly not the right word for the delicacy of the cat’s paw prints. Again, the colon is incorrect. Blame the translator, not the poet. There is in these (mistranslated) images a beautiful haiku.

Pound appears to see the haiku as a sentence and perhaps he models his Metro poem on what he saw as a hokku-like sentence, not a sentence he wrote that is hokku-like.

Pound summarizes what he takes from these two poems, his (mis)understanding of haiku and how it influenced him:

                  The ‘one image poem’ is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is
                  one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the
                  impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion.

Haiku is really a two image poem, and the hokku Pound refers to in his Essay both have two images.

Haiku is not about ideation although ideas are expressed; and a haiku is certainly not made up of two ideas, which is why Moritake’s poem is not a haiku. Yasuda says it is. (20) Blyth says it is not even a poem. (21) Isoji Aso, a noted haiku scholar, has this to say about ideation and haiku:

                  What governs such an art [as that of haiku] is not a concept or logic,
                  feeling or rationalism . . . Even if we find an idea in it, that idea is
                  something diffused throughout the entirety of the art product, like the
                  air. (22)

For Pound “the Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy.” (23)

Pound makes it clear in his Essay that he does not really understand haiku. What he says about his Metro poem though is true to his theory of the Image and Imagism: It is the whole poem that makes up the Image, not its component parts—and in that respect a haiku is a one Image poem; and Imagism is a process that has nothing to do with form or content, real or imagined—and in that respect many modern Japanese and English haiku conform with Imagist principles.

In the second part of this three part article, Pound’s “theory of super-position,” Bruce Ross’s assertion that Pound’s Metro poem is a fabricated metaphor, and Bill Higginson’s view that it is a haiku will be the focus of the discussion.

In this article the terms hokku and haiku will be treated as synonymous, which is accurate.

Throughout this article any reference to Pound, the poem or what he said and so on, witho
ut a footnote after it, is from this essay, which will be referred to as the Essay.

Fluences is a section of troutswirl devoted to studying haiku, and haiku-like work, by 20th and 21st century western poets. Each installment will take a closer look at a poem, or a group of poems, by a poet who has either dabbled in haiku, been influenced by haiku, or whose work has had an influence, in some way or another, on 20th and 21st century English-language haiku.

Fluences is overseen by Nick Avis.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. An indepth essay. Coming from India – where we come from very different cultural and artistic ethos, this made very interesting reading and reminded me of our own literary traditions.

    Keenly waiting for the next,

  2. Finally, an article that dives into the compositional detail of Pound’s “Metro” poem from the perspective of contemporary haiku poetics. This is the essay I didn’t even know myself that I have been waiting for!

    Congratulations to Nick Avis on a breakthrough piece of writing that should be required reading for all haiku poets. IMHO, I think it belongs in the 2009 RMA.

    I think I know at least one person who is overdue in making a contribution to the Haiku Foundation.


    Bill Cullen

  3. The much-anthologised ‘In A Station of the Metro’, I’ve found, is *the* great poem to use when introducing people familiar with Western poetry to EL haiku. Easy then to follow with a traditional, translated Japanese haiku and a contemporary EL one.

    Whether it’s judged to be a haiku or not has never concerned me: it certainly demonstrates what we are likely to find in a haiku, concentrated images, juxtaposition or apposition, the sense of there being unstated layers of inference which engage the reader.

    Another thing: I was waiting for a train on a station of Melbourne’s underground ‘loop’ the day after the London underground bombings several years ago and Pound’s poem came into my head uncalled and with chilling force. Faces pale with Winter (here) and the fluorescent lighting, that cold wind from the tunnel that precedes the arrival of the train. In the Metro in Pound’s day it might’ve been gaslight that he saw those faces by. It’s not hard to see why he used ‘apparition’: there are times of sudden perception when the familiar and mundane seems overlaid with a more striking quality, a haunting quality.

    Good to read this first part of ‘Fluences #1’ and I look forward to more discussion of EL haiku and the various influences that have gone into forming it.

  4. Wow, another great piece of writing from THF. Thanks so much, Nick, for this insightful analysis on a particularly interesting topic.

    You mention William Carlos Williams in the text so I hope he will be the subject of a fluence at some stage. The haiku quality of his work (even some of his longer pieces) struck me immediately.

    I have read previous slightings of Moritake’s haiku, it seems it’s not quite “U” among practitioners of haiku, yet I like it – and don’t doubt for an instant that he saw it happen. I have observed just this is my own garden – and was terribly disappointed when I found I hadn’t written anything particularly original.

    When the spring winds are swirling and blossoms and butterflies intermingling in the space between branch and ground this is just what you may be see. The fact that a religious overtone may be laid upon it by dint of the poet being a priest is neither here nor there. The “parable” aspect of the poem may well have come after the poem had been written.

    “These things/astonish me beyond words.” William Carlos Williams, from “Pastoral”.

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